From Einsteinian Relativity To GM Luxury [Comparison Test]

By Peter Dushenski

Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. THAT’S relativity.

Einstein’s famous quote is perhaps more familiar than his scientific theories. It’s certainly more digestible. His contributions to physics, and by extension philosophy, are so out there that they’re tough to swallow even today, a century on. Time dilation has to be the mother of them all. It states that time and therefore reality are relative to the observer.

It also turns out that whether reality is being experienced at speeds approaching that of light or just in terms of the very earthly notion of luxury, the theory holds true. It’s all relative. If you’re reading this on your MacBook Air at the hippest new Third Wave coffee shop, then your idea of luxury is very different from the 585 million Sub-Saharan Africans without electricity. See? Relevant and gratitude-inducing.

So if we agree that luxuries are relative, it seems natural to wonder how three of GM’s most notable luxury brands compare, relatively speaking. Not only to each other, but to their notable competition. So let’s take a look at two of the newest, most prominent, and successful offerings from The General: the 2012 Buick Regal eAssist and the 2012 Cadillac SRX Premium Collection AWD, to see how they match up with an odd Swedo-luxury wagon of yesteryear: the 2008 Saab 9-5 2.3t Wagon.

This is far from a “fair” comparison – as if the world were ever fair – the spread in price, utility, and features is significant if not silly, but it’ll still be interesting to see how a car made in Sweden, a car made in Canada (but previously in Germany), and a car made in Michigan compare in terms of luxury, particularly since they all come from the same parent company.

Disclaimer: This is a very CarEnvy-esque test.

Style:

This is a fairly subjective category, but you wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t mildly curious what I thought. With the Saab I’ll be blunt: it looks 10 years old even though its only 4. That’s not ideal. Those splashes of chrome around the headlights, a desperate measure to lure the last few Saab diehards into the 21st century showroom, are just gaudy in a remarkably un-Swedish manner. The 9-5 isn’t aging gracefully any more than Janice Dickinson is. So while I’m a died in the wool wagon fan, the Saab comes dead last in the looks department by some margin. But what of the other two, and how will they age?

The SRX’s exterior design thumps its American chest with retrotastic tailfins that look plain smokin’. Particularly at night, the SRX has the most attractive rear of any luxury crossover on sale today thanks largely to the visual connection that the pointed rouge peaks draw to the logic-defying Cadillac Cien concept. For me, the more than Cadillac can strengthen that visual link, the better. After all, the Cien is cemented in my gearhead memory from the 2011 LA Auto Show, where I poured over its endless, harbour-beckoning lines with Fifth Gear impresario Jonny Smith. It was one of the coolest moments of my gearhead life, and the SRX is the direct beneficiary of that. The profile and front exterior design of the SRX are less exciting, to my eye, with creases that remind me of the destinationless roads around Dubai.

The Regal’s new teepee-shaped LED eyelashes look upscale and elegant, while the profile and rear are understated, if simple. Overall, the Regal can only age well, showing its German roots well in that respect.

Comfort:

With a luxury vehicle, I look for two things: smoothness and control. It shouldn’t realign reality like a GT-R, it should relax and coddle over the kinds of uneven and frost-heaved roads that city dwellers (like me) inevitably struggle with. It should also made life easier and less stressful for the occupants, like yoga but with open eyes and hands separated by a 3-spoked wheel.

Over broken surfaces, our American-built friend tended to clomp a bit. For this, the 20″ blingtastic rims were largely to blame. While not as clumsy as wearing traditional Dutch shoes, the SRX’s wheels were covered in a blinding chrome finish that was about as fashionable and nearly as nimble. The tense sport suspension of the Premium Collection trim level didn’t help matters either. The driver could feel a lot of this unseen busy-ness, but he couldn’t hear it. The sound isolation from wind and tire noise was very respectable, giving the driver the enviable choice between listening to the new-for-2012 308hp 3.6L V6, essentially the same unit found in the CTS Coupe, or the Bose® 10-speaker 5.1 Cabin Surround® sound system. There’s no wrong answer between the two.

Perched atop the highest loft, the SRX also provided a psychological comfort that the other two couldn’t match. We often forget to talk about this type of comfort, but we really shouldn’t. Brandishing its wreath and crest, the chromed Cadillac grille always commanded an on-road presence. Other vehicles were less likely to ride my bumper and more likely to step aside when the tailfins set course. The confidence and peace of mind that this provides in Edmonton, The City Of Trucks, cannot be understated. In my experience, other drivers seemed to hold this bold Caddy in the highest of regards. It was kinda nice.

The comfort of the 4-year-old Saab was at once the least surprising feature and the most enjoyable aspect of the 9-5 driving experience. The ride never felt fixed to earthly distractions; rather it skipped across reality with the lightness of socialist helium. The 2.3t engine was nowhere near as sonorous as the Cadillac’s 3.6, but its tangible masses of turbo torque were equally effective in motivation. The Saab had wonderfully springy seats that, like the SRX, were far too wide for my youthful frame. While all three vehicles offered heated front seats, the Cadillac’s more sizeable price tag allowed it to trump the other two with heated rear seats, ventilated fronts, and a heated steering wheel that made cool Spring mornings so much more pleasant. Still, that the aged Saab had even heated front seats wasn’t taken for granted given the primitive interior it was burdened with. How cheap did the 9-5 interior feel? Although it cost nearly 3 times more, it failed to distance itself from the most basic Chevy Aveo from the same year. I’m intimately familiar with that particular year of Aveo, having sold more than a few of them during my oft-whispered tenure as a Chevy salesman, so trust me when I say that they go shot-for-shot.

Last up for the comfort category, we have the Buick Regal. Over a year ago, I drove a more basic model of the Regal some 600km to Calgary and back to see if the Autobahn DNA survived the trans-Atlantic voyage. I enjoyed the trip, but it failed to ignite my passion and the seats left my back in a more knotted than the Federal Tax Code. At that time, I concluded that the Regal wasn’t a convincing competitor to the Acura TSX. Today, I wonder if I wasn’t high. I have to ask myself because after a week with a graciously-equipped eAssist, fitted with a modest 0.5 kWh battery and shorter final drive ratio to increase fuel economy, I was left deeply impressed with the whole Regal experience. Passionate it ain’t, but civilized, understated, and effective it is. Just the way we all wish a government, a monarchy even, would work, but never can. I might even go so far as to call the Regal desirable. The interior was certainly the best of the three, with a marvelous infotainment system that uses a touchscreen combined with an iDrive-like joystick. The two input methods complement each other like houmous and cucumber, giving the driver everything he needs to find new destinations and listen to his music intuitively and with minimal fuss.

On the road, the Regal was the most engaged of the three, giving the driver remarkable feedback even on winter tires. The eAssist was quick to find its rhythm on challenging roads, even if the engine never prodded the driver to get there. The chassis feels like it could comfortably handle more horsepower, which prompted me to tweet GM Canada’s marketing maven in an effort to sneak a Regal Turbo or GS into the press fleets for the Prairies. We shall see if I was effective or if I was merely blowing hot air…

Conclusion:

There’s no winner here, just three GM cars made in three different countries demonstrating three vastly different approaches to luxury. But not all of them are so successful, particularly when we bring money into the picture.

At C$40,815 the Buick Regal eAssist with every box ticked is as well-equipped as anyone could want and is a thoughtful alternative to the likes of even the Mercedes C250. You’ll also save at least C$3000 when comparing to the Merc, not to mention more enticing financing rates, resulting in a rather strong case for the Regal. Indeed. I still haven’t driven a TSX to tell you which is better, but the preference I held for the Acura a year ago just isn’t there anymore. Do let me know if you find it kicking aboooot.

At C$56,525 the Cadillac SRX 3.6 Premium Collection is priced very closely with the more refined, complete, and fresh as flowers Lincoln MKX. The SRX is due for a sizeable update in 2013, one that will address the interior shortcomings with Cadillac’s much-anticipated CUE infotainment and connectivity system – featuring an 8″ LCD multi-touch screen with proximity sensing and haptic feedback. Nifty. As the owner of a New iPad (can’t I just call it iPad3?), I’m excited to try out CUE multi-touch gesture control. I expect that it will do much to narrow the SRX-MKX gap.

Then there’s the Saab. It might not stand out in a UBC parking lot filled with Conti GTs and R8s, but for only C$10,000 it makes a reasonable, if highly unlikely, case for itself. It’s a luxury proposition that sets you apart. It shows that you care about safety, eccentricity, and, since you can only buy them used now, saving Bordens. As for competition, there’s no $10,000 Cadillac, Buick, or German car that mixes the same infuriatingly funky ingredients so compellingly. Even if you have to pretend that Volvo doesn’t exist to buy one.

We started with three GM luxury cars and we found out that they’re not created equal, especially when we brought competition and pricing into the mix.

One is a textbook Teuton with a tempting tag.

One is attractively American, but not (yet) altogether assuring.

And the last is sweetly Swedish, a spellbinding swan song.

General Motors has always had a brand hierarchy, their own internal relativity meter. That way, your neighbour knows precisely how well you’re doing. It’s tempting to think that, with dead brands shirked off like a chameleon’s pebbled skin, the hierarchy would be similarly discarded. As these three show, the podium is alive and well. Relatively speaking.

And that’s the Philosophy of Driving for this week. See you next Tuesday morning!

[Photo credits: GM, Peter Dushenski]

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